Wednesday, June 8, 2016

To Be a Pro is to Be Abused.

Trigger warning: Bears.
I want to say a few words to young developers on the value of resilience and the growing of a thick skin.

Slow down there. Hands off the keyboard. I an NOT talking about abuse, harassment, and threats. I've already written on this topic. Certain behaviors online are clearly unacceptable, and you should not be subjected to them.

What I AM talking about is learning to endure criticism and occasional hostility that is an inevitable part of being a creator in a public way.

Because you will be criticized. You will be insulted. People will be mean to you. Also, because you are only human and will occasionally make mistakes, sometimes that criticism will be justified. So you should be ready.

I'm going to tell two instructive stories. One about me, one about an ambitious young developer. (Well, as of this writing, ex-developer.) Know enough to be afraid. 

You WILL receive feedback like this at some point. Prepare in advance an appropriate reaction.
A Time That PC Gamer Was Mean To Me

In November, 2000, PC Gamer. reviewed my game Avernum. This was a huge deal for me, as PC Gamer was the biggest press outlet around. The game was already selling very well, but we were eager for a hit. Also, press attention for a small developer has always been really hard to get.

Imagine my surprise when the review, written by a Gentleman I Will Not Name (GIWNN for short), came out and my score was 17/100. Yes, 17%. I'm sure a lot of thought went into it. I imagine GIWNN up late at night, agonizing. "I mean, this game isn't quite good enough for a lofty 18%, but it's also not the sort of hackery that merits a mere 16%."

But it gets better. The review also says my game is worse that choking to death on your vomit. (I swear I am not making this up.) The review included a helpful sidebar that listed rock stars who choked to death on their own vomit. (Again, I SWEAR I am not making this up.)

If you are upset by the current level of journalistic standards in the games industry, I assure you there have been issues for some time.

Some developers would be given pause by a review like this. Some might even be slightly upset. I was not. I was still being given a full, free page of coverage in PC GODDAMN GAMER. I know that review brought me a bunch of new customers. I heard from them. I'm sure I got more extra cash from the review than the GIWNN got for writing it. (And, when you get a few drinks in me, I still get the review out sometimes to show to friends.)

Are you an aspiring game developer? Picture the largest games press outlet publicly treating you in such a manner. If you have any response besides, "Hey, any PR is good PR," you might want to reconsider your career path.

I got that review, and I went on to have a highly lucrative and satisfying career. PC Gamer went on to give very kind coverage to quite a few of my other games. And the GIWNN went on to achieve his True Destiny: being a negligible non-entity.

Since I was taking pictures in my office, I thought my more devoted fans would like some sweet backstage info. For example, I work surrounded by my classic vidya gaem collection. Here is a tiny portion of my Atari 2600 games.
The Tale of Bear Simulator

What brought this article on was the sad story of recent indie title Bear Simulator, written by an ambitious fellow named John Farjay. Full disclosure: I have not played it, as bears are Godless Killing Machines

Bear Simulator was funded on Kickstarter with an impressive haul of over $100K. Farjay then broke from Kickstarter tradition by actually finishing the game in a reasonable period of time. He delivered it to backers and released it on Steam. (As of this writing, user reviews for the game: Very Positive.)

At this point, and I'll admit I'm a little fuzzy on the exact particulars, the game received some negative press. There was a particularly brutal takedown by renowned INTERNET TOUGH GUY Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg (sometimes referred to as PewDiePie). This review ended with him getting a refund on Steam, which is now the traditional way for a vicious hack job to spike the ball in the endzone.

John Farjay quit, announcing this in a poignant little post on Kickstarter. Since it might not still be up when you read this, I'll include an excerpt:

Well the game didn't have a great reception, has a stigma against it's name and there's plenty of other problems so making any updates or going further is basically a lost cause now. Plus not skilled enough to make the game better than it currently is or write better updates than previously.
 Was really hoping the Steam release would go well but why would it, should have just gave the game to backers and not bother with Steam.
 Also don't want to deal with the drama anymore. Can't ignore it because that causes more drama and can't do anything about it because that causes more drama.
 It was really fun making the game, trailers, updates, websites, tutorials, blog posts and stuff, hopefully you all liked those things.
 Am glad most of you guys are happy with the game though, unless you were just being nice

I mean, seriously, if you don't find this at least a tiny bit sad, you have an even harder heart than I do.

The Thing That Makes Other Indie Devs Raise Their Eyebrows

There are so many of us who would give a lesser body part to be savaged in a video by PewDiePie. Man, I would love for him to tear apart my work in one of his videos. I'd salve my hurt feelings by using the extra sales to buy a Tesla.

But that's the difference between a hardened veteran and a new recruit, isn't it?

Some of the piles of junk that form my nest. Yes, those are two functional Vectrexes. I am amazing. 
THIS IS NOT A HIT PIECE AGAINST JOHN FARJAY

If you know anything about me, you know that I would never savage a young, earnest developer. Others enjoy lashing out when there's blood in the water (especially when there's tasty, tasty clicks to bait), but I don't.

I have no problem with John Farjay. He offered a game on Kickstarter, delivered a game, became unhappy, and tried to extricate himself from the situation in as ethical a way as possible. The only real criticism I've heard leveled against him is that he didn't provide Kickstarter updates that often, but that isn't a crime as long as the game eventually arrives.

Here's what this situation sounds like to me: This guy wanted the job, applied for the job, got the job, decided he didn't like the job, and quit. This happens 10000000 times a day. It's not a big deal. It's only the public element that made it newsworthy.

And here's the cool thing: There's still hope. Suppose John Farjay changed his mind. Suppose he caught up on sleep, went for a few restorative walks, and went, "Wait! I do want to write games!"

He could write a Kickstarter update, say, "Sorry. I went nuts for a few days. I'm better now, and I'm back to work!" If he did this, I promise that he'd be welcomed back with open arms. It's a great story, and people love indie devs because we're quirky and human.

This shouldn’t have ever happened, though. Aspiring developers need to hear tales like these, so that they know what they are in for.

A shareware award I got in 1997, next to notes from my new game. My work notes very strongly resemble the opening credits to Se7en. 
But What Does That Mean Exactly?

It’s easy to say “Toughen up.” But what does that mean? How do you modify your behavior and reactions in a way that enables you to withstand being in this business longer. Because that’s the goal: Creating a stable, sustainable business you like to run.

This will, in the end, vary from person to person. I don’t know what your mental fault lines are. I don’t know what freaks you out. I only know that, when you find the thing that freaks you out, you should probably modify your behavior or inputs in a way that leaves you calmer and more able to do your job.

For example, a lot of devs I know worry about weird metrics. They obsess over their Steam wishlist numbers, or their user reviews, or if they can compete with some new game that’s coming out, or whether keys they chose to sell through Humble Bundle are being resold. The world presents us with infinite trivia to worry about.

If a piece of input worries you, and you can’t control it, and you have no crystal clear idea what its impact on your life will be, feel free to ignore it. In fact, you probably should ignore it. If something upsets you, do everything you can to ignore that something.

Being harassed is VERY difficult to ignore, so do what you need to to keep from being harassed. Forums are nice, but you don’t HAVE to have them. Twitter has its points, but you don’t HAVE to be on it. (This is true. I ran a successful business for many a year before Twitter went live.) If a forum or public-facing account is a hive of harassment and nastiness, shut it down for a month. Most of the trolls will move on.

If you say, “I have to be on [web site] no matter what!” you are giving the crazies a weapon they can use to hit you. Don’t do that. “But they can drive me off of a site? That is wrong and not fair!” Yes. It is wrong and not fair. I’m angry about it too. But this isn’t an undergraduate ethics class. It’s business. Who ever told you business was fair?

(Fun aside: What percentage of online abuse against developers is secretly being launched by their competitors to push them out of the business? It might be 0% now, but, as the industry gets even more competitive, it won’t stay 0% forever. Sleep tight.)

This is a TOUGH, competitive business. It’s a blood sport. To have even a small chance of success, you will need to bring your A game, day after day, for years at a time. If something distracts you from that, you must cut it out without mercy.

My latest game's Metacritic. It's entirely fair. When I disagree with something someone wrote, I send them a respectful rebuttal
Quick Aside About User Reviews

Most indie developers write games aimed at niche audiences. Therefore, the games they write won’t be liked by most gamers. This is pretty much the definition of ‘niche.’

Alas, indie developers also tend to really freak out about negative user reviews on places like Steam. They worry about this too much. It’s easy to forget that, if you write a game aimed at only 10% of the gaming audience, 90% of players will hate your game. A lot of them will leave bad reviews. This sort of review is not harassment. It’s the system working as intended.

Sometimes, when a dev expresses an unpopular political opinion, those who disagree will organize a brigade and spam your Steam page with negative reviews. This sucks, and they shouldn’t do that. (Although I would gently observe that, when your goal is to run a profitable business, political activism will only very rarely help in this.)

Not all clumps of negative reviews are signs of evil intent, though. Maybe you just wrote a game a lot of people don’t like, and they told you, and that’s the end of the story. Be ready for it.

I suggest making sure that the sliver of users who like your games are paying you enough money to stay in business. Then do what I do and don’t read user reviews. EVER.

But Getting Back To the Main Point

John Farjay was living the dream, and he fell apart. It's far from the first time, and it won't be the last. Life in the public eye, even in so lowly a role as indie game dev, can be tough. It's not for everyone.

It's the job of me and others like me to prepare the neophytes. They need to be ready for these jolts. They can't let one nasty review or article collapse them.

Assholes and hacks exist. So do reasonable people who will call you out when you inevitably make mistakes. You must be ready for all of them.

How do you get to this lofty point? I don't know. I just wish you luck, and I won't hold it against you if you find you aren't cut out for it.

Brace yourself. Good luck.

###

(You can read my moment to moment thoughts on Twitter, which I am on for the moment. Finally, I can't resist ending with a link to this.)

47 comments:

  1. "I suggest making sure that the sliver of users who like your games are paying you enough money to stay in business. Then do what I do and don’t read user reviews. EVER."

    This is extremely poor advice for developers. User reviews are where most people go to air their grievances about a game. Is it crashing for them somewhere? Is something a massive roadblock for many players in terms of difficulty? Is there a large bug that's ruining the game for them? Are they misunderstanding something simple? Can their issue be solved with a minor developer response?

    Most negative user reviews fall under these categories, and in my experience they're generally happy to switch to a positive review after a minute spent skimming over their review. You make them happy, your game review score goes up and you have a better understanding of the faults in your game. So long as a person isn't outright abusive, you probably shouldn't ignore why they're upset with your game.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your experience with online reviews is WAY better than mine ever has been. I think it is a bad idea to let a horde of unfiltered screaming voices into your head.

      I've written a lot more on this exact topic, for anyone interested ...

      http://jeff-vogel.blogspot.com/2011/01/three-reasons-creators-should-never.html

      - Jeff Vogel

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    2. If you're reporting crashes in a review you're doing it wrong. The way to report crashes is through the developer's support channel....

      Delete
    3. People "do it wrong" in droves. You can complain about the user behaviour but it's a reality, so I see the value in dealing with these issues from there.

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  2. As a free mobile game (yes, I'm slightly ashamed), our product probably gets a lot more reviews daily than even AAA games on Steam (for example, because we push users to rate our game, as is standard practice).

    Reading them all isn't interesting (most just say "nice game" or "this sucks"), but I find myself constantly filtering in 1- and 2- star reviews with negative feedback to monitor for problems.

    Partly, I do this because mobile market specifics means that we have nearly no other interaction with our users: they never write us e-mails and even our social pages are mostly user-free :) They just don't care enough about yet another mobile drag racing, really.

    However, recently Google rolled out a very interesting tool which should help developers who do not wish to read reviews (either because there are too many of them, or because they find it painful). It uses AI to summarise user feedback, for example, by giving you most used non-trivial words in reviews (ours are "great graphics", for example), and also giving you words that seem to pop up in the most positive and most negative reviews. So if your game has an unforeseen difficulty jump around level 3, you might see "level 3" in that column, or "too difficult" - and then drill down to concrete reviews containing these words. While conveniently ignoring reviews that simply call your game "s**t" and calls for developers' death and/or mutilation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the thing that is surprising me most is that some devs get bug reports from user reviews. I get pretty much all of my reports by either email or from forums. I vastly prefer this because I can contact the poster in ways I often can't respond to a reviewer. But if reviews are the only way users tell you about their bugs, I guess that's where you have to go ...

      - Jeff Vogel

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    2. It's a matter of audience, I think. Gamers that really care about game would want to contact developer directly, but casual gamers are far more likely just to vent their frustration in reviews or on forum (if the game has one).

      Niche gamers see the creator as a human being, because they might know something about game development (i.e. that it's hard :) ), but for casual gamers, developers are just machines that produce assembly-line products for their entertainment.

      This is why in a niche, reviews can be both far more positive and negative than for a casual product. We get no life threats in comments, but we also rarely get any endorsement, or any positive reviews longer than one sentence.

      Especially frustrating is when we add a new major feature to the game (we added two new game modes), and there is literally zero reaction in reviews. Does the players like what we done, do they hate it? What could be improved? Nope, no answers, no comments, just the same stream of "good game", "bad game". Thankfully, we have statistics gathered from game, because we can allow ourselves to be a tiny bit evil and spy on what our users are doing in game, even if they play the offline portion. Still, getting actual, articulated human feedback would have been nice for a change...

      Delete
  3. I used to own the magazine the PC Gamer review appeared in! I think the reviewer played Avernum for all of about 30 minutes. Jeff, I think I emailed you about that review (I was outraged, even though part of me was thinking "he probably enjoys getting mentioned in PCG"). I seem to recall him complaining about how both Endurance and Hardiness existed as skills (sic; Endurance was of course an ability score). Among many other inane complaints that could have been filled by reading the Foglio Art provided descriptive text.

    Good times.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Farjay seems to be a bad example for your point. On the one hand, we have a typical PewDiePie takedown, rather light for his shtick, Steam reviews that are generally positive due to confirmation bias of kickstarter supporters, and a sympathetic media response. On the other hand, you have a rough game which deserves some level of criticism.

    Farjay is living the best-case scenario. If that causes him to pull out of game dev...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are right, Farjay got what he deserved. Another victory for us. If we can just force all game developers and game journalists to quit then we win! Then we can sit around being entertained by our own sense of smug satisfaction. Don't stop until we have total victory over the game developers, how dare they try to eek out a living by trying to entertain us.

      Delete
  5. I think that this quote from Kevin Smith describe the problem very good.
    http://zenpencils.com/comic/kevinsmith/

    I don't think that anyone mustn't do bad critics, but constructed critics and a little of consideration with the rookies would get better games for everyone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it's a really good quote, but I think the message the comic gives is fundamentally misleading and underestimates the mental resilience that is part of being a long-term artist.

      I think the main reason the comic went viral is not that it says something profound about the nature of art, but that seeing Brutal Mindless Dad yell at Helpless Waif Girl makes us feel sad.

      If Helpless Waif Girl instead looked like me, and Derivative Disnee Dinosaur Movie #1275 was made by 75 year old me, nobody would care about that comic.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    2. I'm sorry for acting like I want to jump on you. I just like taking the piss out of uplifting, viral internet things. #badperson

      - Jeff Vogel

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    3. But I can't help myself. Did ANYONE read that comic and think, "Wow! That Dinomites movie (song by Katy Perry, $25 plush toys) looks sweet! I wish that existed in real life!!!"

      Because it DOES. It was called The Good Dinosaur, and it was Pixar's lowest grossing movie, and I feel like I'm the only person who liked it.

      If that girl grew up to create The Good Dinosaur, Disney would sent the T-1000 back in time to yell at the little girl for them.

      Oh, god. The moment I get up from this chair, I have to go upstairs and start fixing bugs.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    4. I was one of those who liked The Good Dinosaur, too. Loved it, even.

      Honestly, I think people just didn't get the movie and the point it was making. Probably everybody went to the cinema expecting Land Before Time 2.0 or somesuch; but in truth, TGD had troubled production and this probably showed in some sub-conscious way.
      (I probably had glossed over it, since I'm a diehard dinosaur/dragon fan.)

      - Drake Vato

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  6. If there's a good thing about not knowing success right away (in my case it took 9 years) is that you realize that what is worse than bad critics is complete indifference. Or maybe almost complete indifference still mixed with bad critics.

    When my last game finally met financial success I found out that I didn't mind much the worst of the stuff written about the game.

    Even when almost nobody knew about my games and I wasn't making a penny with them I was still receiving abuse anyway (though on a much smaller scale than in a video from PewDiePie) so I had the worst of it. I learned that even by trying to listen to everyone that it wasn't the way to "use" this negative energy to finally make money or a better game.

    It's not that I've become "immune" to this but now I check my sales report and know to not waste too much time over this. Each time I start to feel bad about this I remember the time when I still had a day job on top of receiving such abuse and then I'm able to get by easily.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Interesting point about niche games. I always read the negative comments on Steam when considering a game. Sometimes I buy the game based on what the negative reviews say.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I like your respectful rebuttal. Well played, sir. Well played.

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  10. What a freaking crazy business this sounds like.

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  14. I found your blog surfing on the internet and found out that you're Avernum's dad! Man, I played your game years ago and don't think it deserves 17%, should be much more :)

    Anyway, thanks for the words, I'd like to become a game dev in the near future and I started to study libGDX for now

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  17. This is one of the best articles I ever read.
    "My game is worse that choking to death on your vomit" - hilarious, man! I feel you!

    I think the more you master anything, the more you post things that are not usual for others, the more haters arise.

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  18. ... Excellent post, as always, but it'd be great if more spam posts could be removed :o. Unless that's unfeasable :/. Oh well, carry on... can't wait for Avadon 3 :3.

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  19. I read all Steam review of my games. I always reply to them, especially the negative ones. Some will actually amend their feedback to 'positive'. I don't think of this as cheating, either. I deserve the higher feedback for being a responsive developer.

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